Colic Surgery

If your horse needs colic surgery, this information may be helpful to you. Most colic is treatable medically but sometimes surgery is needed to save a horse’s life. About 60% of horses that require surgery survive and lead useful, productive lives as athletes, pleasure horses or broodmares. However, that means 40% die in the immediate short term or have significant complications that interfere with their usefulness and may eventually lead to death.

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Colic surgery is expensive. To explore and humanely put to sleep an adult horse on the surgery table costs approximately $2500 depending on the amount of pre-operative care. Total cost to an owner for a patient that experiences an uncomplicated recovery averages $6000 - $8000. A complicated recovery is uncommon but may exceed $10,000. Complicated short-term recoveries are more likely to have long term complications and it is often difficult or impossible to predict complications pre-operatively.

There are no guarantees. We are dealing with a difficult medical problem in a complex biologic system that is under attack by bacterial and inflammatory toxins. Colic surgery requires a team effort, difficult and physically challenging surgical procedures and consumes a large amount of supplies and drugs.

Full payment for the procedure and post-operative care is required at the time of discharge. Please see our financial policy for details. A deposit is required (minimum of $1000 for existing clients, $2000 for new clients) in addition to a credit card number. Care Credit is available for those who qualify.

We will work hard to save your horse and will strive always to treat your horse compassionately. We want you to be well informed before proceeding with surgical intervention.

To download a colic surgery release document, click here.

Colic is one of the most dangerous and costly equine medical problems, estimated to occur in 1 of every 10 horses each year (Tinker et al.,1997), it is the number one killer of horses. It is not a disease but a combination of signs that alert us to abdominal pain in the horse. Colic is a general term indicating abdominal pain. (n.) Spasmodic pain in the horse, usually caused by spasm of the intestine; (v.) The reaction of a horse to abdominal pain, kicking, rolling, sweating. The digestive system of a horse is a complicated series of interactions among many different organs. The small intestine alone is 60 feet long in your average size horse. Equine Colic can originate from the stomach, the small intestine or the large intestine. The entire digestive network is suspended and nourished by a thin membrane called the mesentery. Any malfunction, displacement, twisting, swelling, infection, or lesion of any part of this complex body system is what we recognize as colic. There seem to be countless situations which can precipitate colic. Many conditions causing colic become life-threatening in a relatively short period of time.

The main causes of colic are intestinal distension and reduced blood supply to the intestinal tract. Peristalsis (the waves of contractions along the muscular walls of the intestine that propel the contents along) of the intestine is reduced and distention will occur due to reduced movement and absorption of water and nutrients. The pressure which results from this lack of passage of material through the digestive system results in a reflex action, which causes adjoining areas to contract in spasm. Distension and reduced blood flow may be due to an accumulation of gas fluid or feed, digestive disturbances, intestinal obstructions, internal parasites, or twisted intestine(torsion and volvulus). Chronic distension may be caused by a horse constantly swallowing air "wind sucking".

The primary causes of the abdominal pain is the distention of the stomach or intestines, pain is also produced when the peritoneum is stretched during attacks of colic. The first response the body makes to distension is to INCREASE the secretion of digestive juices, which increases the pressure, and causes dehydration and imbalance in the chemical systems of the body. This can often become a feedback reaction which can lead to shock, which must be treated as a separate syndrome by the vet, since it is frequently the cause of colic deaths. The paralysis of the intestine also allows toxic material to escape through the stretched walls and enter the abdominal cavity, where the horse can be poisoned by his own intestinal contents.

Signs of Colic will vary according to the severity of the particular conditions. In the horse, abdominal pain is usually sudden. Very few horses exhibit all the signs at one time. Signs associated with mild to moderate pain include:

  • pawing the ground,
  • sweating
  • looking around at the belly,
  • restlessness,
  • lack of appetite,
  • stamping the hind feet, and
  • lying down.

With more severe, unrelenting pain, horses may:

  • paw the ground violently
  • appear drawn up or bloated in the belly,
  • muscle tremors or straining,
  • male horses may stretch out and relax their penis, without urinating,
  • kick violently,
  • sweat profusely,
  • lie down and get up frequently,
  • roll or lie on their backs,
  • sit on haunches like a dog,
  • have an elevated or below normal (with shock setting in) temperature,
  • have an increased respiration rate,
  • have an elevated heart rate, or
  • have few or no gut sounds.

A horse showing severe signs of colic should be seen by a veterinarian immediately. If the signs of pain are acute and the cause of the distention is not removed, death often occurs within 12 to 48 hours. Rapid diagnosis and treatment are vital. In cases of mild pain, the veterinarian should be consulted as to the best course of action. Be sure to give the vet your horse's symptoms when you call, put the horse in a comfortable stall and remove his feed and water. Allow the horse to lie down if he appears to be resting. If the horse wants to roll or is behaving violently, attempt to walk him slowly. Don't try to treat the horse CALL YOUR VET.